Saturday, April 27, 2013

With an empty stomach

One shouldn’t underestimate the Israeli government’s public relations headache caused by one young Palestinian who is tightly incarcerated behind bars and who confronts the entire might of the state, its government and army and security services, his only weapon being – an empty stomach.

Samer Issawi had already spent many years in prison, with no one in Israel hearing of him. In fact, even among Palestinians he was not very famous, except perhaps at his native Isawiyya in East Jerusalem. When the prisoner swap took place at the end of 2011, he was no more than one of many Palestinian prisoners being set free and getting an enthusiastic welcome and then dropping off the headlines.

He would have probably remained in obscurity, if not for somebody in Israel’s security services deciding to return him to prison some six months after having been released. This was on the basis of his having “violated the terms of his parole” – i.e., he had left Isawiyya, which is part of East Jerusalem and has been  annexed to Israel in 1967, to have a car repaired at a garage in the town of A-Ram just outside the annexed territory. Therefore, he was to be returned to jail and serve a further 14 years. And yes, the security services told the media they were in possession of evidence that Issawi had "gone back to terrorist activity" and therefore must be imprisoned – such evidence being highly classified and therefore could not be presented in public and certainly not shown to Issawi himself.

It was at this point that Samer Issawi used his secret weapon and stopped eating and stated that he would not stop his hunger strike until the Israeli authorities agree to release him. And for two hundred and sixty five days  Samer Issawi was walking on the precipice, balancing on the fine line between life and death. Nothing went into his mouth but some liquids and vitamins which just barely kept him alive while he was growing ever thinner, losing dozens of pounds and becoming a living skeleton on his bed at Kaplan Hospital, to which the security services insisted upon shackling his  arms and legs, even when he was too weak to stand.

"An act of desperation" was how the well known Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua put it. In a letter which he sent to the imprisoned Issawi, co-signed by several other prominent intellectuals, Yehoshua wrote: "We read with great pain of your hunger strike. The accounts of your ever deteriorating situation terrify and shock us, We feel that the act of suicide you are about to commit will add yet another dimension to the tragic and desperate conflict between the two peoples" .

But this was a mistaken appreciation. It was not a desperate and hopeless man who lay on that bed, and futile suicide was not his purpose. It was a fighter who put his life on the line in a very special kind of battlefield, struggling for his own personal freedom and that of all his people, but certainly with the hope of coming out victorious. There in the hospital bed he knew that his hunger strike was becoming the focus of growing attention by Palestinians wherever they are and increasing the unrest and agitation on the West Bank - just at the time when Israel’s PM Netanyahu was making a special effort to present to the world a situation of calm and tranquility and economic prosperity in the territories occupied by the State of Israel 46 years ago.

In a message taken out of the prison Issawi sent a message to the Palestinian masses: “I draw my strength from my people, from all the free people in the world, from friends and prisoners’ families of those who go on, day and night, crying out for freedom and an end to the occupation. I say to my people: I'm stronger than the army of occupation and its racist laws. My struggle is not only for my individual freedom. My struggle and that of my heroic fellows Tariq, Ayman and Ja’affar is everybody’s struggle, the struggle of the Palestinian people against the occupation and its prisons. Our goal is to be free and sovereign in our liberated state and our blessed Jerusalem. The weak and strained beats of my heart derive their steadfastness from you, the great people.   My darkening eyes draw light from your solidarity and support . My weak voice takes its strength from your voice, which flies higher than the prison walls”.

There came to his bedside the representatives of the security services of the State of Israel and made him a generous offer - to be released immediately if he agrees to be deported to the Gaza Strip. But ever since 1948, exile from home and hometown has been engraved in Palestinian consciousness as the most painful and traumatic of experiences, and Samer Issawi rejected any idea of ​​a release which would not return him to his home at Issawiya in East Jerusalem.

And when representatives of the European Union expressed to their Israeli colleagues their growing concern for Issawi’s situation, someone in the government came up with the brilliant idea to offer that one of the Western democracies take Samer Issawi to its bosom and rid Israel of him – except that  Issawi himself of course rejected this idea out of hand. And he further escalated and exacerbated his hunger strike, causing his health damages which might prove irreversible, and made an even deeper dangerous bend towards the abyss, and the security experts came to Netanyahu with nightmare scenarios of the huge conflagration which might break out among the Palestinian masses should he die in prison .

Then he did what no other Palestinian prisoner had done before him, and sent out  another open letter. This time, it was not addressed to the Palestinians; he made a direct and painful appeal to Israelis everywhere.

“Israelis, I am Samer Al - Issawi, who is what  your soldiers call disparagingly an Arabush,  who is a Jerusalemite that you have put in prison for no more reason than that he went from Jerusalem to a suburb of Jerusalem. I have not heard one of you interfere to stop the loud wail of death, it’s as if each and every one of you has turned into a gravedigger, that everyone is wearing a  military uniform: the judge, the writer, the intellectual, the journalist, the merchant, the academic, and the poet. I cannot believe that a whole society watches uncaring my death and my life, that you have turned into guardians over the settlers who chase after my dreams and my trees.

Israelis, I do not accept to be deported out of my homeland.  Maybe now you will understand that the awareness of liberty is stronger than death. Do not listen to the generals and their dusty myths, for the defeated will not remain defeated, and the victor will not always be a victor. History is not measured only by battles, massacres and prisons, also by the extending of the hand of peace to the other - and to your own selves.

Israelis, listen to my voice, the voice of the time which is left to you and to me. Liberate yourselves of greedy power, do not remain prisoners of the military camps and the iron doors in which you have shut your minds!

I invite you to visit me, to see a skeleton tied to his hospital bed, and around him three exhausted jailers. Sometimes they take their appetizing food and drinks around me. The jailers watch my suffering, my loss of weight and my gradual waning. They often look at their watches, as if asking themselves in surprise: how long will this damaged body still go on living?”

This letter did get some response in the Israeli society. Not among all Israelis – there are quite a few among us who consider all Palestinian prisoners to be “terrorists” and all “terrorist” to be "murderers” and all "murderers” to be “child killers".  Such people were not especially impressed by Samer Issawi’s letter (if they heard about at all...).

But there were some who were  touched deeply in their hearts and consciences by the letter. They went out into the streets of Tel Aviv and sat every day at the traditional demonstration site at the corner of Ben Zion Boulevard and King George Street and there held every day a symbolic hunger strike of their own.

There were those who went to the Kaplan Hospital and made great efforts to overcome  barriers and prohibitions and get to that hospital room which had become a prison cell and where day and night there were sitting three guards around the bed of a frail inmate who could not have risen from the bed even if he were not bound to it.

With some amazement, Yehoshua Breiner of the  Walla news website wrote that "The  hunger striking Palestinian prisoner has become the focus of  pilgrimage." He further elaborated that "A room in the D Internal Ward at  Kaplan Hospital in Rehovot has in recent weeks become a Mecca for left-wing Israelis, who are trying in every possible way to get to one person who is hospitalized there. No, it is not an ailing Rabbi or cultural icon for whom they are concerned, but for the hunger striking Palestinian prisoner Samer  Issawi, which is in danger after losing dozens of pounds of his body weight.

This hospital department, which is typically populated by elderly people with serious illnesses, is now crowded with police, prison guards and hospital security. The hospitalization of Issawi had created a huge  'headache' for the  security system, due to the constant attempts by dozens of activists gathered in front of the closed door or chanting encouragement to the prisoner under his window."

Tamar Fleishman and Ophira Gamliel were among those who caused the greatest headache for the security people, as described by Gamliel:

"Tamar is adept at disarming people and getting at their hearts. I just kept silent and took photos. At the desk, the receptionist repeated the name Issawi in a matter of fact tone and told where he is hospitalized and how to get there A laughing girl sitting at the back said she had a birthday, Tamar wanted to give her a flower, but she stubbornly refused .
We asked the nurses where his room was.
"Who are you?"
"Friends of the family."
"Do you have a permit?"
"No. We just want to bring him flowers."

With a slightly melancholy expression, the nurse suddenly got up and motioned for us to follow. She opened the only door which was closed, got out accompanied by a uniformed prison guard, and went  away  wearing a look of "I did my best, from here on you are in their hands."

The guard repeated the nurse's questions. He got a little upset, but Tamar's smiles can melt a stone.
"You can’t  enter. You need a permit. Who are you? What organization do you belong to?"
"Not any organization, we just want to bring him flowers."
Another guard, smiling, emerged from the room.
"Why have you come?"
All we could say was that we were suffering from a broken heart.
"How do you know about him, anyway?"
"We heard in the media."
I did not say a word because Tamar is much better than me at talking.
The tough guard continued to ask questions and get matter of fact answers from Tamar. Then he went off to make a call, and while he spoke on his communicator with somebody in charge Tamar continued to talk with the smiling guard. His eyes betrayed some empathy.
The tough one came back with a curt "Well, you don’t have permission." But Tamar insisted that he at least pass on the flowers. I think Samer heard it, that he knew there were two Hebrew-speaking women who tried to visit him and give him flowers. (...)

Two weeks later, when we came back, we already knew the way, we did not ask anyone or talked to anyone or asked for permission and just went down the hall. And this time, the door was open when we arrived. In the room there were three guards around the bed in front of the window. A light white blanket hid legs which did not  reach the edge of the bed. Tamar and me were sucked in. They did not notice us.

Tamar tapped lightly on the open door. Two guards stood up immediately with  question marks on their faces, and we were already half inside the room. Samer sat up in bed and looked at us with soft and bright eyes. He nodded  lightly at each of us, and smiled out of his thick beard. The meeting of the looks felt like a strong handshake. We were  together. Despite all.

All this took no more than a brief moment, and then the guards got up, and we took a step back. They did not allow us to give him the flowers, nor the letter.   "Who are you, what are you? Show your papers! You can’t give him anything, you need a permit!"
One prison guard calls for instructions, another one looks at us and mutters something like “With all due respect ...”. Tamar continues to nag, the flowers lie on the floor, and we know that Samer hears it all.

It's not so important – neither the letter nor the flowers. The single moment of looking at each other was a priceless gift. And we hope that our attention to Samer will win him a bit of your attention, too. He is the partner, ladies and gentlemen, he and and his hunger striking fellow prisoners" 

Epilogue: This evening, Saturday night, April 27, a demonstration was going to take place in Tel Aviv, and a major effort was going to be made to gather a decent number of Israelis who would march through the streets and raise banners and loudly demand the release of Samer Issawi. This specific demonstration has become redundant. Already earlier this week Prime Minister Netanyahu approved the agreement placed on his desk by his security chiefs. Samer Issawi is to be released and to return to his native city of Jerusalem and to the neighborhood of Isawiyya and to his own home and nowhere else, and he is willing to wait another eight months for the ensured moment of liberation. Now he can get some rest from the mighty struggle he conducted, and in a gradual and controlled manner start eating, and repair the damage to his health (hopefully not irreversible).

But the tale is far from over and done with.

Video: song and debate in the corridors of D Internal Ward at Kaplan Hospital